Well, I grew up in the suburbs but I lived in Cambridge, Newton and in an apartment so close to Fenway Park that it only took a few minutes to walk over and sit in the bleachers and watch the Red Sox.
Boston is a great setting for crime novels–Dennis Lehane, Robert B. Parker, William Tapply, George V. Higgins (this would be a long list) have all used the setting.
Welcome Richard Cass to the fray with Solo Act. “An alcoholic walks into a bar … and buys it.” You won’t soon forget that particular recovering alcoholic, Elder Darrow.
A full review follows but, first, the very thoughtful Richard Cass was kind enough to answer a few questions.
Question: Where did you get the idea for Elder Darrow and, while we’re at it, that name, ‘Elder?’ Have you ever owned or managed a bar? If not, how did you learn about the job? Is there a specific bar in Boston you used as a model for the Esposito?
Richard J. Cass: I was looking for a way to put my hero in a serious conflict from the get-go and since I knew I was going to be writing a mystery set in a bar, I thought this would start him out with a problem before the book even began. I chose the name Elder for a couple of reasons—I wanted him to sound as if he came from an old New England (read Mayflower-passenger) family and I thought it might give him a little extra weight as a character to have an old-fashioned name.
I worked behind bars all through college and managed a couple as well. It’s a very interesting way to collect stories and observe human actions without having to participate in the craziness too much. The Esposito, where Solo Act is set, is more a combination of a number of bars I’ve both drunk in and worked in over the years but isn’t based on a particular one, though it shares some characteristics with the old Jazz Workshop and Paul’s Mall in Boston.
Question: What about the idea for a putting an alcoholic in charge of a bar? What was the inspiration?
Richard J. Cass: Conflict, conflict, conflict. There’s a funny story that goes along with this. When I first started shopping the novel, a very prominent New York agent told me the premise was ridiculous and no one would ever buy the idea of an alcoholic in charge of a bar. I hope I’ve made it believable, even if it seems unlikely. My take is that the tension between Elder’s alcoholism and his testing himself every day adds to the conflict in the book—in a way it’s like an added love interest, only turned sideways.
Question: You decided to show us what the bad guys are up to – and go from first-person with Elder to third-person with them. Was that hard to do?
Richard J. Cass: Pure inexperience, I think. Solo Act was the first mystery I finished and there’s a lot where I was writing by the seat of my pants. In a way, it’s a mark of my lack of sophistication as a writer at the time that I let myself get away with things like that. I probably know too much now to do something like that unconsciously. On the other hand, I’ve always been a sucker for Elmore Leonard’s depictions of the criminal mind from inside—bad guys are often more interesting than straighter characters.
Question: You started your writing career as a poet so how does poetry influence how you write fiction? Or does it? Do you still write poetry? And, who are some of your favorite poets?
Richard J. Cass: If poetry influences me in any way, it’s in always trying for the maximum concision. It also means I sometimes underwrite, though. One of the hardest things for me in the transition to mystery fiction was leaving behind most of the lovely vocabulary and imagery I could deploy in poems. That said, I was probably a mediocre poet—I hope I’m a better fiction writer. I do not commit poetry any longer, though I do read as much as I can. Some favorites: Mary Oliver, Charles Simic, Jim Harrison, Gary Snyder, Raymond Carver.
Question: Did you plan and plot this book out? Or do write and see what happens?
Richard J. Cass: Total seat of the pants on the first draft, though I went through eight or nine drafts by the time I was done. What I often do, and did with this book, is break the draft into scenes in an Excel spreadsheet to look at POV, balance of characters, order of events, and so forth. But that’s always after I have a completed draft.
Question: Tons of jazz and music references are sprinkled throughout the book—where do your tastes in music run? Care to mention any favorite, overlooked musicians (or bands) that are folks should know?
Richard J. Cass: Huge jazz fan, obviously, both old time and contemporary. My idea of a good night is a bottle of Pinot Noir and a roster of Dave Brubeck, Paul Desmond, Johnny Hartman, and others from that era. I also have a taste that I don’t confess to just anyone . . . for middle-of-the-road rock from the seventies and eighties. About the only kind of music I don’t listen to regularly is opera–and I’m working on that.
Question: Okay, I’m just going to come out and say you’ve got a really good eye for detail when it comes to describing clothes, both for men and women, and great descriptions of how people look and carry themselves, too. Any tips for writers along these lines?
Richard J. Cass: Mostly close observation, I think. I believe everyone has maybe two or three characteristics—physical or assumed—that combine to mark them as unique. My hope in creating characters is to describe them economically but accurately in as little space as possible. Clothes, jewelry, etc. can be dangerous, though, because the temptation is sometimes to use them in place of character development rather than as a supplement to. Nothing I like better than sitting in a public place and trying to catalog people by their physical selves.
Question: Ultimately, Elder Darrow’s terrific internal struggle is what carries the narrative—the tension over his efforts to not drink and also the tension over whether he can stop considering himself a failure. How did you map out or think about his emotional journey in the book and how it fit with his investigation into the death of Alison Somers?
Richard J. Cass: Writing this book was such intuitive work for me that I don’t know if I can come up with a coherent answer to that. I’ve known people in situations like Elder and Alison and I think the extent to which I’ve been able to empathize with them helped me make better characters. But as far as conscious planning or mapping out of the path? Not here. Just lucky, I guess.
Question: And what’s next?
Richard J. Cass: One of the unhappy things about the publication of Solo Act is that Five Star, the publisher, has quit publishing mysteries. (I’m assured that Solo Act was not the cause of that decision ;-). So it’s unclear if Elder has a future, though I have written two other novels using him as a character. I am also currently shopping a standalone thriller, set in Portland, Maine, about a man avenging his fiancée’s accidental death who winds up killing the wrong person. My next project may or may not be a procedural about a rookie cop on the Montreal police force . . . but I’m only three pages in.
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Elder Darrow’s family had been in investment banking “since the Revolution.” He was raised to “learn the mores and manners of the ruling caste.”
But now he’s a recovering alcoholic and he owns a bar called the Esposito. He’s into jazz. He’s a bit of music nut. Managing the soundtrack at the bar is one of the ways that Darrow is trying to upgrade the reputation of the once-bleak watering hole, purchased with a trust fund windfall. He knows when Paquito Rivera needs be swapped out for Bill Evans.
Darrow is trying to upgrade the bar, and its clientele, the same way he’s trying to upgrade how he thinks about himself. His reputation. His last chance for “straightening out” is the management, in fact, of this bar. “All forty-four by fifty feet of it, sixteen-foot tin ceilings and the twelve metal stairs, same number as to the gallows, with a steel-pipe railing up to the street door.” There’s a triangular stage in the corner, “big enough for a trio as long as none of them was fat.”
Darrow has been sober for a year a half, but has positioned himself smack in the middle of temptation, pouring drinks for others. Darrow’s days as the owner of a pub started with a grand bargain. The deal was that his father’s bank would hire him if he could stay dry for two years and run the Esposito at a profit. But then dad died and he is left to wonder why he still cares. Elder Darrow is good at asking questions of himself.
One of Darrow’s regulars is a jazz-loving cop named Dan Burton who gets called away on a “sidewalk diver.” That suicide turns out to be a singer named Alison Somers. Darrow had been “utterly absorbed” with Somers for six months and the idea of her taking her own life doesn’t sit well.
As the motivation for amateur sleuths go, this is a nifty one. Darrow’s interests in Somers’ demise tangle with his own personal journey of discovery and the daily tests of his sobriety. His background, after all, could not have been more different than her youth in Roxbury, the poorest part of the city. How well did he know her? He had a pact with Somers—and assumed the pact remained despite the split. The deal was this: he would stay sober if she’d keep taking her anti-depressants. “But if I were ever going to be sure of that, I was going to have to find out for myself. Because I was afraid that if she had killed herself, then I would find my own reason to start drinking again, and then both of our stories would be over. If I didn’t do something, I was failing her memory and probably obliterating my own.”
With this great set-up, Solo Act follows Darrow as he begins asking questions and poking around. This isn’t a case of bar/restaurant turned Jack Reacher, it’s a case of one real man taking one step and then the next to get at some troubling and unresolved questions. Cass doesn’t push the pace, he lets the weight of Somers’ demise tug on Darrow’s soul.
Crafted for humanity and not designed to set pulses racing, Richard Cass chops in nifty, poetic snippets of Boston streets and alleys, noir-ish vibes and sounds (cue the sorrowful sax.) Cass intersperses Darrow’s trail with chapters that give us glimpses into the lives of the prescription pill bootleggers with their questionable plans and distrust in the ranks.
The Boston setting comes to life, but it’s a glitz-free view with back alley trash and dank smells. There’s a woman. And temptations. Failure lurks. One slip and Darrow know he won’t get credit for all the time he stayed clean. Darrow examines addiction from all angles. The investigation becomes a reflection of his own nature as much as finding out why Alison plunged to her death. In the end, Darrow is both bartender and barfly. He’s the wise mixologist, a bartender keenly aware of the poison he’s dispensing, and he’s got a burning need to know.